James Leamon Forbis enlisted in the Navy in 1939. When war came on 7 December 1941, he was on the front line of history, serving as a coxswain on board the USS Arizona (BB-39) when the bombs started dropping. He survived the attack and went on to serve through World War II on board the destroyers Craven (DD-382), Kalk (DD-611), and De Haven (DD-727). He retired from the Navy as a chief boatswain’s mate in 1961. In the following excerpt from his U.S. Naval Institute interview, he vividly recounts the fateful events of the Day of Infamy from Ground Zero.
As I Recall - Battleship Texas Sets Out for the Great War
Long before he served as senior naval member on a UN Security Council committee; years before he became Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Mediterranean; decades prior to his World War II service on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, the future Vice Admiral Bernhard H. Bieri (1889–1971) served in the legendary battleship USS Texas (BB-35) during World War I. In this excerpt from his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, Bieri describes gunnery training in the Chesapeake in the months leading up to the U.S. declaration of war, as well as a particularly rough Atlantic crossing on the way to wartime service with the British:I was ordered to the Texas, which I joined in April 1916, at the New York Navy Yard. I served in the Texas from that date until June 1919. During the First World War, the Texas was a brand-new ship, just having gone in commission, and had an excellent bunch of officers on board. The Navy was at that time, I think, manning guns on merchant ships. One of the jobs of ships in the fleet was to train crews for these merchant ships. I was given the job on the Texas of supervising the training of the enlisted men who were going on as these crews, particularly in training them how to spot their gunfire.They took the whole fleet into the York River, behind the submarine nets, in early 1917. We spent the winter of 1917 in the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. The Germans were prowling in the Atlantic and sinking ships all over. So we had nets up, and they put us back of these barriers in the Chesapeake Bay, where we carried out our target practices. The river and the bay froze up very hard. We had some of the old battleships that were used as icebreakers.We stayed there all the next summer carrying out target practices, training men. It was in April 1917 that we had declared war on Germany. Our destroyers started to go to Europe. The fleet, toward the end of the summer, rendezvoused at Port Washington in Long Island Sound, which got closed off with mines and some nets around the harbor.The Texas went to the New York Navy Yard for overhaul. We were there in the fall, when it was decided to send a division of coal-burning battleships to Europe under Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman. This was the New York, Texas, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Florida—five ships. They were coal burners, because there weren’t sufficient oil supplies in Britain.We went to Europe in February of ’18. We had a rather rough passage up in the rolling 40s. We had one escort at that point—a destroyer; she was a converted yacht. She was going to join the destroyer force. Then we went on our own. We got in this storm, pretty heavy weather, and we had to slow down. [Lieutenant] Harry Hill [a Naval Academy classmate of Bieri] had joined the ship during the year. I was relieving him as officer of the deck on this morning at 0400. He had had the midwatch. I came up on the bridge, and Harry was very happy to see me.He said, “We’ve lost the two topmasts. The boats on the port side are all stove in. We’ve lost one of the lifeboats. The gasoline cargo which we had on deck, lashed to the barbettes of the turrets, is adrift. The drums are rolling all around the deck, and the ship is full of gasoline fumes. The smoking lamp is out. The deck is yours.”We finally got rid of the gasoline on the topside, got squared away, and ran out of the storm. We arrived off the northwest coast of Scotland, where we were picked up by some British destroyers as escorts into Scapa Flow. We spent from February 1918 to early December 1918 as part of the Grand Fleet. Institute Launches Memoir ProgramThe U.S. Naval Institute is announcing the launch of its new Memoir Program, which will serve as a significant enhancement to the Institute’s all-important heritage mission. Many are those who have served in uniform, and for a great number of them, those military years—whether on the front lines of combat or down in the trenches of the great Pentagon policy debates—stand out as the most vital and unforgettable parts of their lives. The Naval Institute Memoir Program will provide veterans and their families with a trusted place to archive electronically their autobiographical accounts, their letters, their vignettes—all the elements embodying the treasure trove of their experiences. This ever-growing online collection will provide historians and researchers with a priceless bounty of primary-source material, recounted by those who were there. For future generations, a crucial perspective on military history will be preserved. For more information, contact Oral History Program Manager Eric Mills at [email protected]
By Vice Admiral Bernhard H. Bieri, U.S. Navy (Ret.)